With California’s packed prisons nearly out of room, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed a state of emergency, an unusual move that could allow the transfer of inmates as soon as next month to other states without their consent, the Los Angeles Times reports. The governor said teeming conditions have created a health risk and “extreme peril” for officers and inmates at 29 of the state’s 33 prisons. Crowding has overwhelmed water, sewer, and electrical systems at some prisons and fueled hundreds of prison riots, melees, and smaller disturbances in the last year. At the maximum security Folsom prison, violence is so prevalent all inmates are now fed in their cells.
Without immediate action, prison beds could run out next summer. That would leave inmates to pile up in county jails, many of which are already overcrowded or operate under court-imposed population caps that force them to grant some felons early release. Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit firm that has won lawsuits challenging conditions inside state lockups, called the declaration “political theater” by a governor running for reelection. “Why now? This is an idiotic thing to be spending time on, because the number of beds they will be able to find in other states will amount to a grain of sand on a beach,” Specter said. Corrections Secretary James Tilton said the emergency proclamation allows him to skirt the state’s cumbersome competitive-bidding process and sign contracts for out-of-state beds quickly. Of the 172,000 people behind bars, about 17,000 are in “bad beds” – bunks in areas not designed as living space. The state is poised to sign three- to five-year contracts for 2,200 beds at private prisons in Oklahoma, Indiana, Arizona, and Tennessee.